The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
Also see John's review of The Secret Garden
When producer David Stone brought Wicked to Chicago for its first sit-down production outside of New York he gave us not only a spectacle virtually identical to the one on Broadway, but a cast with solid Broadway credentials as well. He raised a few eyebrows when it was learned that his Chicago's sit-down Spelling Bee would be cast entirely locally. Might this show, unlike Wicked, be a cut-rate copy of the NYC production that featured the likes of young, but accomplished performers such as Jose Llana, Celia Keenan-Bolger and Jesse Tyler Ferguson? Not to worry. The performers assembled here are as confident, relaxed and entertaining as most any you'll see on Broadway. Though I didn't see the original Broadway cast, I have enjoyed the above-mentioned performers in other shows, and their counterparts here won't need to endure any teasing from them.
L-R Cristen Paige, Derrick Trumbly, Bill Larkin, Christine Werny,
Eric Roediger, Lucia Spina, Jen Sese, Brad Weinstock, James Earl Jones II
Though locally cast, the actors here are mostly unknown to Chicago theatergoers as well, with some of them just finishing college and making their professional debuts. The talent hunt that must have been required to find a group like this is award-worthy on its own. Tara Rubin Casting and their Chicago consultant David Petro could not have taken any short cuts in finding these gems. First in the class of newcomers is Derrick Trumbly, a 2005 graduate of Chicago's Columbia College, in the role of Leaf Coneybear, originated by Ferguson. He captures the character's goofiness and "gee whiz, I can't believe I'm here" nature that makes him the most likable of the boys. He's like a marionette, moving his body in a way that suggests his character is not entirely in control of the directions his limbs may take. He's big talent and a major find.
The feistier two of the three girl characters are played by young actresses studying for BFAs in Music Theatre at different universities in Michigan. Jen Sese, from the University of Michigan, is overachiever Marcy Park; Christine Werny, from Western Michigan University, is amazingly convincing as the pre-pubescent grade-skipping ten-year-old daughter of two gay fathers, Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre. If these two are anything as self-assured as their characters, I pity the professors who will have to try to teach these young actresses when they return to class after working for James Lapine! Luckier are the profs of Brad Weinstock, who's about to graduate from Northwestern University (where I caught his knockout performance as Franklin in Merrily We Roll Along two and a half years ago). He has both the arrogance and vulnerability of the Boy Scout Chip – here ethnically reassigned from the Filipino-American Chip Tolentino played by Llana to become Chip Berkowitz. If I were their faculty, I would just give Sese, Weinstock and Werny their degrees on the spot.
Two other cast members came down roads less traveled for aspiring musical theater performers. Eric Roediger, a former youth theater director from Cleveland making his professional debut here as William Barfée, may have the toughest challenge of the cast in that his role was the platform for Dan Fogler's Tony Award last year. If Roediger isn't quite up to Tony caliber on his first time at bat professionally, he still makes a lot of a good part and possesses the ability to use his large frame to large comic effect, in the manner that worked so well for the likes of Chris Farley and John Candy. Bill Larkin, whose background is mostly from standup comedy, comic writing and piano bar performing, is an absolute hoot as Vice Principal Douglas Panch. He has the deadpan delivery needed for reading the words to be spelled and the ironic sample sentences in which they're used (i.e. "Mexicans: a slang term used by Americans for all persons from Mexico, Central and South America"), but effortlessly goes over the top during a brief nervous breakdown.
Just three of the production's actors come from the ranks of Chicago professional theater. Lucia Spina is a sympathetic and big-voiced Rona Lisa Peretti and James Earl Jones II is effective as the parolee comfort counselor Mitch Mahoney. It's Cristen Paige, though, who has the breakthrough part as little Olive Ostrofsky, the shy little girl with the absent parents. Paige, who's toiled mainly in ingénue roles in suburban Chicago professional musical theaters, finally has a chance to show her stuff in a big way downtown. She adopts a slouching posture that communicates a heart-breaking loneliness and lack of self-confidence. I'd recommend that city audiences take this opportunity to see her before Mr. Stone or Mr. Lapine sweep her off to New York.
Lapine's direction keeps the satire of childhood, puberty, and contemporary parental pressure to achieve at a gentle level where it could have been so easy for it to feel mean. He and associate director Dan Fields have the cast in perfect harmony, capturing the necessary tone and pace of the piece, while Dan Knechtges' choreography blends these nerdy pre-teens' lack of coordination with the excess energy of their age group. The costumes by Jennifer Caprio amazingly transform the adult performers into kids, and Beowulf Boritt's sets recreate the mundane world of a school as well as the kids' flights into fantasy places they've never seen, like the Taj Mahal. Even without a cast of thousands (or even a cast of tens) or special effects, there's much stage magic going on here.
William Finn's music may be an acquired taste. I acquired a taste for it with March of the Falsettos; with his ability to create childish adults like the Falsettos characters, he was the perfect writer for this show. Rachel Sheinkin's book, based a play done by an improv group called The Farm and its director Rebecca Feldman, resonates and amuses in its treatment of universal themes surrounding the pain of growing up. That ought to be enough to keep this open-ended engagement running for a very long time, and for the sake of the audiences who'll enjoy it and the subsequent classes of young performers who'll succeed this cast, I hope it does.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is an open-ended engagement at Chicago's Drury Lane Theatre, 175 East Chestnut Street. Performances are at Tuesdays at 7:30 p.m., Wednesdays at 2 & 7:30 p.m., Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays at 8:00 p.m., Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets are available at the Drury Lane Water Tower Place Box Office, all Broadway in Chicago box offices, by phone at 312-902-1400 and through Ticketmaster.